In his talk the other night about designing your garden with maintenance in mind, Jeff Epping mentioned Pagoda Dogwood (Cornus alternifolia) as a good low maintenance tree suitable for our climate. We have four of them in our garden for that reason. They are beautiful in every season from bud (below) to snow-covered. The only time we've ever had to do anything with them was to prune broken branches after a bad snow storm.
At the opposite end of the maintenance spectrum are all the evergreen trees that Mark "candles" annually to control their size. This has to be done when the growth is soft and new and thus there is a time constraint for getting finished before new growth hardens off. Mark usually fills a few contractor's garbage bags with evergreen tips.
This pair of 60-year-old apple trees demand annual attention as well. They look beautiful in the spring when they bloom. But we discovered that falling apples meant that hanging a hammock between the two trees was not a smart idea. All that money for a top quality hammock that we barely used! First lesson learned.
Apple trees require an annual pruning at this time of year to keep them healthy. We don't care about edible apples so we don't spray the tree (more work!). But Mark has been pruning them each March for 20 years to control the size and shape of the tree. Removing water sprouts is the main chore these days; but it's a chore that's on the gardener's mind from New Year's until the job gets done.
Mark usually picks up most of the clipped branches when he's done pruning but there are always a surprising number that need to be gathered once the snow melts. And don't forget money spent on pruning tools and a special orchard ladder. More lessons learned.
I started my moss garden under the apple trees when we were doing our initial garden construction as I could not plant or do much else in the garden for those first few years. It was a relaxing project to sit in the shade and pull out the grass.
It was only years later that I realized that I should have ignored the moss, not encouraged it. Moss doesn't like anything on top of it. Apple blossoms, leaves or falling fruit — all will kill the moss if they sit on it too long. Endless maintenance to keep the moss looking good. Now the apple trees are dying of old age and disease. The one in the rear is almost gone. No big shade trees = no moss garden.
Luckily Mark, the trees and I are all ready to throw in the towel together. This area is the focus of much conversation and a new, lower maintenance garden will likely get started here this summer.
This planting (below) at Olbrich suggests one solution: more boxwood and yew balls interspersed with ground cover. Replace the trees with something that won't require annual pruning.
Even as I say that, all I can think about is the sensation of coming down the gravel path as it curves past the moss and you walk under the sweep of the apple tree branches. It is a moment of quiet and shade whose loss will irrevocably change the garden.
LAUGHABLY LOW MAINTENANCE
You've seen the pictures below a number of times as they include some of my favorite plants: daffodils, daylilies and true Geraniums. And they are my big success story. They get snow and salt and grit dumped on them each winter with no apparent trouble. They have not been bothered by pests. They solve the problem of dealing with a slope that ends in a curb at the street that many folks keep planted in grass and mow. Our maintenance for this area? Every few years in the late fall we mow it all down — if we think of it.
I think this fits the definition of a mixed border in that it has trees (along the back edge), shrubs (Spirea, Burning Bush), bulbs, perennials, and sometimes annuals. You can see daylilies coming up which will replace the daffs. Bronze fennel, Alchemilla, Nepeta are also in the mix. Just out of sight to the right of the image above is the red fire hydrant.
As the daffs fade the Geraniums are in full flower. Then the daylilies grab the attention as the Geraniums transition into foliage plants. The only maintenance I do out here is deadheading and only if I feel like it. This garden is really for the walkers and runners and the slow drivers who pass by on their way to somewhere. I love knowing it always looks good — without my help.
Mark walked around the garden yesterday snapping photos to help us remember what a nice December we've enjoyed this year. Usually at this time of year we only get to see the tops of evergreen trees; shrubs are usually soft white mounds if they are visible at all.
The litte bit of grass we have in the garden is squashed down from earlier snowfalls and is a shadow of its normal color. But moss just glows when the snow disappears. Its lush color is never more welcome than now.
Lichens are in full "bloom" with the cool damp weather we've had for most of December.
One of my favorite vignettes in the garden is this pairing of cut and natural stone, each sporting green.
There are even a few plants still looking good despite the freeze/thaw cycles they've been through — as well as being buried under the 8.6 inches of snow we've had so far this season. This is hardy bamboo (Fargesia rufa 'Green Panda'). This died to the ground after last winter but came back slowly over the summer, though it's still a fraction of its normal height.
Christmas fern is pretty flat but still offers a spot of bright color.
Two Hellebores. The larger one flowered before Thanksgiving.
Moss is the one plant in our garden that absolutely shines during the spring showers we're having this week. Clinging to the pond rocks or spreading across packed clay soil, moss glows in the gray light of a rainy day.
Its cheery brightness helps to keep my spirits up while I'm stuck indoors.
But I will definitely be happy to see some sun and warmer temperatures. Feels like everything in the garden — including the gardener — is in a holding pattern.
To see what some other gardens look like at the end of April/beginning of May visit The Patient Gardener who hosts a monthly meme on this topic.
What does it say about me that I can endlessly re-read classic novels like "Sense and Sensibility," "Jane Eyre," "China Court," "The Shuttle" or "The Witch of Blackbird Pond" and always find them deeply engrossing and entertaining. But hand me a current best seller and I am never quite as satisfied. I am not sure what I expect in a fiction book these days but I never seem to quite find it.
I just finished 499 pages of Elizabeth Gilbert's latest book — "The Signature of All Things" — getting engaged and annoyed in equal measure. Ultimately it was too over the top in its travels and travails. A main character who is always described in negatives whether her size, looks, hair, or personality. Two sisters who live in the same house but never speak and a best friend who is insane (literally). Not unlike life and yet not particularly involving or instructive in a novel. Or not presented in any way that worked for me.
I decided to read "Signature" because it was about a botanist, a subject I find fascinating. And our heroine was described as a person like me: someone who likes systems, sequences, pigeonholing, and indexes.
I will give Gilbert every credit when it comes to description and detail as this passage about handwriting shows:
“His penmanship was painfully crabbed. Each sentence was a crowded village of capital letters and small letters, living side by side in tight misery, crawling up on one another as though trying to escape the page.”
But I found the only time I paused to savor, to re-read a passage or to make a notation was when Gilbert actually was dealing with botany. Her pages and passages on mosses are pure rhapsody. As someone who has been nurturing a moss garden for years and has taken classes in the subject, waiting for those gems was what kept me reading. Here's a perfect little tidbit:
"Moss is inconceivably strong. Moss eats stone; scarcely anthing, in return, eats moss. Moss dines upon boulders, slowly but devastatingly, in a meal that lasts for centuries."
The fact that I fell in love with the botany and was not moved by a single character until Uncle Dees in the last few pages should be a lesson to me. Stick to non-fiction. When I want to take a fiction break I will steer clear of "important" fiction and just look for good, quick reads.
"China Court" is one of many excellent novels by Rumer Godden. "The Witch of Blackbird Pond" by Elizabeth George Speare is my all-time favorite youthful read. "The Shuttle" is one of Frances Hodgson Burnett's best adult novels.
Last year on this date the garden was already quite green and growing due to our unseasonably warm temperatures (see picture above). Last year the high temperature for the first day of spring in Madison set a record at 81 degrees F. Frankly it was more than a little disconcerting to have it so hot so early in the season, but I am definitely no happier with today's predicted high of 19! And the forecast shows a possible two more inches of snow on Monday. Definitely very tired of winter and dreaming about seeing my moss garden again.
This was the scene on our side of town yesterday. Wind seems to be gone this morning and it looks like a sunny day at least. Photo by MPKing/Wisconsin State Journal.
Another week of above-average temps are currently predicted, along with rain, for our area. That means everyone's grass will green up. But I've been enjoying brilliant color in the garden with the many patches of moss we have. Once the snow melts the moss is an eye-catching electric green.
It's growing in sun, in shade, on damp clay soil, on old grindstones and on rocks in the pond. The only downside is that the critters toss it around when they are looking for bugs. Then it's like a puzzle: putting the right pieces back in the empty muddy holes.
The high humidity has all of our 50-year-old apple and crabapple trees behaving badly. The leaves are turning yellow, getting ugly fungal spots and prematurely dropping. They are falling on the Moss Garden and the Moon Garden where they are not only unsightly but can easily smother the moss and the all the dwarf plants in the Moon Garden. It's so dry that blowing them off the moss will blow the moss off, too. So clean-up is an almost daily task of hand work.
Any number of critters — squirrels, racoons, who knows what — are digging ever deeper in the dry soil looking for grubs to eat. The are scattering mulch to the four winds, ripping up moss in big sheets and now, for the first time ever, they are ripping out the German iris. Usually by this point in the season, I prune the iris by literally pulling out handfuls of leaves and roots. I keep the plants in scale and can easily check for fungal problems and root rot. Maybe there are problems I've not seen that are attracting the critters. Another question and another chore to add to the July list.
I love Japanese painted fern and have it throughout the garden. It is growing in so many locations that I am currently able to look at the clumps like a science project and quickly determine the moisture content of the soil. A number of large clumps in the shade have laid down flat due to dryness. That has to be the case since this clump in full afternoon sun is lushly standing. It has had a bit more watering than other areas that are further from any hoses. But the real difference here is soil. It is planted in great soil with few large trees nearby. The floppy ones are under huge old trees where any moisture is quickly sucked up by the trees. If we're having an inch of rain per week, everybody is happy. But we're getting more like a quarter or half an inch of rain per week and the ferns are sulking. Lots of rain in the forecast for the last week but it's always described as "isolated showers," and mostly we seem to be isolated from them.
Bergenia ciliata is the other Bergenia — the one whose rounded fuzzy leaves look like an African violet on steroids. The leaves are similar in size to Bergenia cordifolia but mine are not quite as upright.
I am growing this where it gets morning sun and afternoon shade, compared to my B. cordifolias which get just about full sun.
All of my Bergenias tend to flower sporadically; B. ciliata's flowers are a sweet Apple Blossom pink compared to the strident magenta of most Bergenias. But this is a plant to grow for its gorgeous foliage. If they never flowered again I wouldn't complain.
Don't let the moss in this image fool you. The ferns, the Bergenia and the moss are all growing in rather poor soil. In fact, the moss keeps colonizing the worst patches of hard-packed clay in my garden.
But the plants all seem to be happy, which means I'm happy, too.